Thousands of students are graduating from local high schools this week and in the coming weeks, marking the end of the familiar and the start of the unknown, whether that be college, a gap year or an alternative post-high school path.
One graduating senior described this moment in time — on the cusp of a new phase, reminiscing about the past four years but with end-of-year events and commencement still ahead — as "pausing before the credits."
To celebrate this rite of passage, the Weekly spoke with four graduating seniors from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, Castilleja School and Eastside College Preparatory School about their most formative high school experiences; their passions, fears and goals; their post-graduation plans; and, of course, the emoji that best represents their high school years. Read their answers to our 12 questions here.
Divya Tadimeti, Castilleja School
One thing Olympian volleyball player Alicia Glass told Castilleja School students at an end-of-year sports celebration stuck with senior Divya Tadimeti: Fail fast.
Tadimeti arrived at Castilleja as a freshman eager to sign up for everything and anything — mock trial, diversity club, golf, student government — but fearful that she wasn't doing enough and wouldn't measure up to her peers.
"I had this feeling like, 'Everyone is so perfect here. Everyone has their lives in order and knows exactly what they're going to do.' It just felt like I was surrounded by so many smart people that I was afraid sometimes to fail."
What Glass said resonated with Tadimeti "because the faster you fail, the faster you can learn from it and go forward from it," she said.
The Palo Alto resident, who went to the private Challenger School for elementary school and then JLS Middle School before Castilleja, eventually found her footing at Castilleja by focusing on the activities she had true passion for. She joined the school's golf team with ample experience, having played since she was 10 years old.
Golf — which she said doesn't get the credit it deserves as a sport that combines physical ability with mental fortitude — smoothed her transition into a new school. She went from the "gawky new freshman" to winning the awards for most valuable player in 2016 and breakout player last year, to this year becoming team co-captain.
"Making connections and friends on the team really gave me the confidence to dive into school," Tadimeti said.
While she channeled her strategic, competitive self into golf, Tadimeti found release in music. She's been playing violin for the last decade and is part of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, a youth orchestra. On weekends, she and other members like to play for tips on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. (She's a sucker for Bach, herself, but the group usually plays crowd pleasers like the Game of Thrones theme song or pop hits.)
She also got involved in student government her freshman year, seeing it as a way to integrate into a community of students who had mostly known each other since sixth grade, and served in various elected positions, including class president this year.
Academically, Tadimeti has zeroed in on a passion for computer and data science, which she plans to study at the University of California, Berkeley. She joined Castilleja's STEMx club and threw herself into an artificial-intelligence course this year, investigating for a capstone project how drones will affect food delivery.
She said she feels both inspired and pressured by the region she grew up in.
"Being in Silicon Valley, it's so cool because you're so surrounded and immersed in all the advances and such cool innovation happening right here. But that also adds the pressure of 'Where am I going to go to school?' with people around you going to such amazing places," she said of college.
Tadimeti advised future seniors going through the college-admissions process to ground themselves in what they care about most, rather than in what others think.
"What I found is there's a lot more value in doing a really, really good job at a few things that you really, really like doing rather than just throwing yourself into a bunch of stuff just for the sake of it," she said.
Giselle Orozco, Eastside College Preparatory School
As a middle school student, Giselle Orozco knew she wanted to go to the private Eastside College Preparatory School for one reason: to make it to college.
Her older brother had been the first in her family to go to college after graduating from the East Palo Alto school. But she's still marking a few firsts on her own: She'll be the first in her family to leave the state for higher education and is the first-ever Eastside student to attend Middlebury College in Vermont.
Orozco credits Eastside with developing her confidence as a student. She lives in Redwood City and primarily speaks Spanish at home with her parents, who are from Mexico and own a janitorial business. As a new freshman at Eastside, she struggled to adjust to a more intense workload and higher expectations. English classes were particularly challenging, as it isn't her first language. But being in a small-school environment helped her feel more comfortable asking for help, she said. Making presentations in Spanish class boosted her public-speaking and communication skills.
Orozco also found confidence on the soccer field. Originally a defender, she took on the challenge of becoming the team's goalie when the position opened up. With urging from her coach, she started working on being more vocal and assertive on the field, directing her teammates to where she needed them.
"Because of that I also gained a lot of confidence speaking to other people. It's that practice of not just staying quiet and being managed by other people," said Orozco, whose taped-up eyeglasses have many times bore the brunt of an errant kick from an opposing player.
Orozco chose to attend Middlebury, against her parents' wishes, because the college offered substantial financial assistance and because of its emphasis on languages. For most of her young life, she has been an unofficial translator for her parents and hopes to pursue that professionally.
"I want to do it at a bigger scale to make sure other people also get that kind of help because sometimes some families don't have children who can speak both languages," she said.
She hasn't yet let go of a longtime desire to become a teacher, however, attracted to the profession because of its service to others. She has always enjoyed helping and teaching other people, including sharing what she learned from her Eastside college and career counselor with former middle school classmates who didn't have access to the same resources.
"I'm showing them how to do something that they didn't know how to do before. I just naturally have a tendency to do that," Orozco said.
She's both excited and nervous about how different Middlebury, a 2,500-student liberal arts college in a small Vermont town, will be for her.
Going to college was not "an idea in my neighborhood," she said, but she was immersed in that mindset from the start at Eastside.
The sense that "you're making it through; we're not leaving you behind," she said, "was really nice to have."
Lia Salvatierra, Palo Alto High School
Lia Salvatierra was on the cusp of entering Palo Alto High School when she spoke publicly for the first time about losing her father to suicide.
When he died, she personally learned the meaning of stigma, from both within her own family and others. She decided to write about it for an end-of-year speech in eighth-grade at Castilleja School and got a standing ovation.
"Writing that speech was an awakening moment," the Paly senior said. "I can't be a therapist. I don't know how to help mental illness as a disease, but I know that I don't want anyone to ever feel the way that I did, that they couldn't tell somebody how they lost somebody."
Mental health advocacy became a focal point of her experience at Paly, where a student died by suicide in 2015 during a cluster of several teen deaths. Her freshman year, she helped to found one of the first high school chapters of a national mental health nonprofit, Bring Change 2 Mind, with two Paly seniors. They felt strongly that students had to play a central role in combating stigma, and the club is devoted to that mission.
They posted facts about mental illness in the library and started a speaker series, inviting a college student who took a leave for depression, a psychologist and 49ers player Solomon Thomas, whose sister died by suicide, to talk to students. Inspired by a struggling friend of Salvatierra's who didn't know where to turn for help on campus, they organized a "cook with counselors" event to introduce students to Paly's counseling staff. (Salvatierra hopes that next year, posters with counselors' names, job descriptions and contact info will be posted in classrooms throughout campus.)
Last fall, she and several other teens who serve on Santa Clara County's Headspace Youth Advisory Group organized a conference to discuss media portrayals of mental health, sexual violence, drug abuse and gun safety.
For Salvatierra, one of the Paly club's events that made the greatest impact on her was a "silent stigma" hike during her sophomore year. Students met at Foothills Park, wearing the most vulnerable parts of themselves in sticky notes on their shirts — "my mom has bipolar disorder;" "I have OCD" or, in Salvatierra's case, "I lost my dad to depression, bipolar and OCD" and "My friends struggle with depression." Together, the students hiked to the summit in silence and then sat in a circle and discussed how it felt to not be able to talk about their connections to mental illness.
The sheer presence of students at an event like this marked a sea change in Salvatierra's mind. She's seen a shift in her four years at Paly from a lack of awareness about mental illness to peers now asking her for mental health support and a new freshman class eager to get involved in the Bring Change 2 Mind club.
"It's in those moments that I know that something has changed," she said. "There still is more work to be done, but I've never seen a freshman grade so eager to engage in this club. The amount of energy we got from underclassmen this year shows me there is change happening."
Some of Salvatierra's most formative experiences at Paly have involved the journalism department. She joined Paly's arts and culture-focused C Magazine her junior year, was an editor in chief this year and plans to pursue journalism after high school. She's drawn to sharing peoples' stories, she said.
Journalism "teaches you so much," she said. "There's no learning like talking to somebody else."
After graduation, Salvatierra is taking a gap year and then will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was one of two Paly students to receive the university's highly selective Morehead-Cain scholarship, which provides four years of funding and specialized activities, such as working with a local government on a social issue for eight weeks and an international service project abroad. The program also funds her gap year, when she plans to travel to Bolivia and Peru.
Salvatierra said she's excited to spend her remaining time in Palo Alto with her classmates, friends and family.
"I think overall Paly has left me knowing a lot more who I am than I think any other school would," she said.
Solomone Paletua, Gunn High School
Solomone Paletua went into the most memorable game of his Gunn High School football career expecting to lose.
Gunn was playing under the Friday night lights at Foothill College against Los Altos High School, whose team had defeated the Titans every year since 2012.
It came down to the final moments. Kylen Liu caught a touchdown pass from Paletua with one second remaining, and LeeMaster Howard ran in the two-point conversion to give Gunn the razor-thin, 14-13 win.
"I don't think I'm ever gonna forget that," said the senior, who will be on the football team at the College of San Mateo this fall.
Paletua has played football since fourth grade and still spends most of his waking moments thinking about the sport. He said he's drawn to the competition and the rush of the game. At Gunn, he's been the free safety, punter, kick returner and, in his senior year, starting quarterback. The Santa Clara Valley Athletic League El Camino Division named him offensive player of the year in 2018.
"It's football all the way," he said. "(At) school, after school — all I'm thinking about is playing football."
Paletua grew up in Santa Clara, and his family moved throughout the Bay Area several times, including to Menlo Park and Milpitas. They settled in East Palo Alto toward the end of his seventh-grade year.
He said he's enjoyed meeting new people at Gunn, where students, for the most part, come from backgrounds that contrast with those from his community in East Palo Alto. That's been a double-edged sword, he said. The most difficult part of high school was adapting to the environment. He felt like people made assumptions about him because of how he looks or dresses.
But he felt unwavering support from his teachers, many of whom were understanding if he needed homework extensions or more time on tests. He's particularly grateful for his German teacher, who stayed late after school while pregnant to help him catch up on work.
"I'm going to miss the aid, the help I get, the support I get," he said. "I'm not used to people helping me out. "
Paletua dreams of playing in the NFL but knows the road there is not an easy one. He's inspired by Vita Vea, who is from Milpitas and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2018. They went to the same church when Paletua lived in Milpitas.
"Seeing that he made it, it gave me a lot of hope," Paletua said. "If he can do it, I can do it, too."
Return to PaloAltoOnline.com on Thursday night for photos and articles from the Palo Alto and Gunn high school ceremonies and lists of local graduates. Castilleja School's commencement will take place on Saturday, June 8. Coverage of that event will be posted on our website by the next day.
• Listen to "Behind the Headlines" where departing and incoming student representatives to the Board of Education discuss key district issues of the past year and ongoing concerns of students. The episode is now available on YouTube and our podcast page.